Wednesday, 22 September 2010

“Haydn’s Ribbits and Beethoven’s Cheep-Cheeps”

In a previous post we shared Daniel Albright’s intriguing preface to his recent book Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song. Below we reprint some typical passages from several of the book’s chapters. Perhaps “typical” is not even the best word, considering how playful and inventive his writing and thinking is. As Paul Griffiths (renowned author of The Substance of Things Heard: Writings about Music and The Sea on Fire: Jean Barraqué) noted with regard to Music Speaks: ‘“teasing” -- in the senses of gently mocking, of pulling out, and indeed of titillating -- is . . . [Albright’s] modus operandi.”

For Wittgenstein, music isn’t like speech; instead, speech is a special case of music. Some of the things you say to me I understand in the way I understand Mozart; some of the things in the way I understand Cage; some of the things in the way I understand Britney Spears. But in all cases, speech is a game with sounds, just as music is a game with sounds–neither strictly possesses meaning, or conviction, but meaning and conviction may glide around either....

[If] language is beset by the same problems of jarring and incommensurable, un-unifiable models that beset music, then music and language are in exactly the same uncomfortable situation. Yes, Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel lurches wildly from narrative to speech-inflection to exasperating tangles of unconstruables; but a written chronicle of Till’s adventures would behave identically. So we are left in paradox: the more we try to understand music as language, the more strongly it resists that understanding; and the more we try to understand music as the opposite of language, the more sweetly, strongly, plainly it speaks to the ear. We understand the siren’s song only at the moment when we stop trying to understand it. [pages 13-14]
Poets have always been listening. The meanings they seek to convey in their poems often seem to lie half outside the words, in the rush of wind or water, in the thunder, in the cries of birds, as if poets were trying to translate into human language a poetry that pre-exists in the whole body of the world’s sounds. Composers also listen; and when they read poems, they listen both to the music of the words themselves, and to the music on the far side of the poems, the music that the poets themselves were attending to. So–when Haydn sets a passage in The Seasons in which frogs appear, he sets the orchestra a-croaking. The philosopher Schopenhauer greatly deplored this tendency in Haydn, on the grounds that music should strive to align itself with the deep urgencies hidden in the heart of things, and not to imitate external phenomena. But it’s futile to try to argue Haydn out of his ribbits, or Beethoven out of his cheep-cheeps in the song Die Wachtel, The Quail. In a poem about sound, the external sound is an irresistibly potent metaphor for the poem’s meaning. [page 105]
At the beginning of Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto to La Dafne, Ovid himself descends from Elysium to warn the spectators that they’re about to see a play about the dangerousness of love: beware, you might fall in love with a girl only to find her turned into a tree. Immediately after this brief prologue, Apollo kills a dragon with his bow and arrow. The whole protocol of this opening is all wrong by the standards of Greek tragedy: if there is a prologue, it is a god (as in Euripides’ Hippolytus), not a poet; and monsters are killed offstage and enter the play as a form of narrative (also as in the Hippolytus). The early opera writers quite liked combats with monsters: in the third intermedio from La Pellegrina (music by Marenzio), Apollo slays the monster at Delphi. To some extent we might say that opera labored to bring into the theatre what was in the world of the Greeks indecorous—obscene in the root meaning of the term, that is, incapable of being presented onstage. Ovid’s poetry seemed to offer opportunities for sex and violence beyond what was permitted in serious Greek or Roman drama.

In later times, actual Greek tragedy made its way onto the operatic stage, but hesitantly and in much altered form. The most important Greek tragedy, for operatic purposes, was Euripides’s Alcestis, the subject of substantial operas by (among others) Lully, Handel, and Gluck. I suspect that part of the reason for this popularity was (1) the fact that the plot—a harrowing of Hades for a beloved wife—was the closest thing in Greek tragedy to the plot of Orpheus, the gold standard in operatic story lines; (2) the story had a happy ending, unlike that of Orpheus, though with some wrenching and hammering a happy ending for Orpheus was usually contrived (Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo had an unhappy ending according to the published libretto of 1607, but not according to the published score of 1609); and (3) the luxury-uxorious aspect of the tale flattered an increasingly bourgeois taste—here was a G-rated opera fit for the whole family. [pages 122-23]

The great master of the inconsequential ballet was of course Meyerbeer, who thought it a fine thing to provide, in Le prophète (1849), a little relief for the bloodthirsty, war-torn Anabaptists in the form of a delicious ballet in which provisions-sellers on ice-skater, simulated with that newfangled contrivance the roller skate, take a break from their capitalist enterprise by dancing. Wagner considered that a Meyerbeer opera was a series of effects without causes, “a monstrously piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatico-voluptuous, frivolo-sacred, mysterio-jaunty, sentimento-knavish dramatic hodge-podge.” You might get the impression that Wagner disapproved. But you have only to hear Wagner’s words to understand that Meyerbeer’s time has come: no pithier description of the Postmodern sensibility exists. Rauschenberg’s goat plugged into an automobile tire, Serrano’s Piss Christ, Schnittke’s Dr. Faustus, the whole canon of Damien Hirst–what are these but more recent manifestations of the piebald, diabolico-religious, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-criminal? Maybe the patron saint of our age is Giacomo Meyerbeer. [pages 163-64]

Music Speaks is available from all good booksellers. Read more on Google Book Search.

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